Burlesque is completely, totally, madly in love with itself, and that’s fine because only a few will admit to mildly liking certain parts of it. I am not one of them, even though I could kind of, sort of tolerate a couple of the dance numbers, if only because it stopped what passes for a plot from moving and the characters from talking for a few minutes.

Otherwise, the song-and-dance sequences are tedious, and for a movie that has a shoestring story tossed in between musical set-pieces, with the sole purpose of justifying belting and hoofing on a glittery stage, that’s among the most passionate kisses of death one could receive. Again, though, the movie loves itself — shiny, happy warts and all.

It begins as any small-town-girl-with-a-dream story must: with a small-town girl with a dream. Her dream is to go to Hollywood and make it as a dancer and/or a singer, and her name, which is a lot less important, is Ali (Christina Aguilera). So she quits her job as a waitress at a bar in Deadendsville, Iowa, where no one has a life she wants, and leaves posthaste (after closing shop and performing a song and dance on the bar’s stage for no one) to Los Angeles. After a strenuous late afternoon of job hunting and rejection, she spots a burlesque club, enters, and has a new dream: to become a lip-syncing, robotically choreographed showgirl.

The owner, Tess (Cher), feigns annoyance but really, sincerely admires Ali’s persistence. Alas, there are no spaces open, so she flirts with an engaged bartender named Jack (Cam Gigandet) to get a job as a waitress for the club’s bar. Thus one circle of inanity is closed for the moment.

More and more open, though. Ali’s crappy apartment is robbed, which we know will happen the moment the movie halts to watch her place her money in the tank of the toilet, and she has to move in with Jack, who gets a call from his fiancée in New York City every time their playful, flirtatious banter pauses for a stare of meek longing. Ali finally gets the opportunity to be on stage after somehow deciphering Tess’ demand to stand out on stage while just becoming one with the group. The club’s resident diva Nikki (Kristen Bell) decides to embarrass her new rival by pulling the plug on the stage’s speaker system, leaving everything in dead silence, which isn’t even close to embarrassing or harmful to Ali’s career.

So Ali sings, and her growling vibrato wows the crowd. Why didn’t you tell me you could sing like that, Tess asks, and Ali responds the only way a character whose actions are dependent entirely on dragging out the whole thing: You didn’t ask.

Have I mentioned the club is in financial trouble? You probably divined that one on your own. Yes, the club is in trouble, and an opportunistic real estate entrepreneur named Marcus (Eric Dane) sits at a table leering like a vulture eyeing carrion, and that’s just when his eyes are on Ali. Jack, meanwhile, glances like a timid puppy dog, and Nikki glares at her like something icky on the bottom of her shoe. The entire plot, really, can be culled just by the looks on characters’ faces while Ali does her thing on stage.

The songs fit into three categories:

  1. Standards (“Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”)
  2. “Character” moments (Ali singing about love when she finds it)
  3. Songs about that unquantifiably quantifiable thing that is burlesque (“It’s a passion / An emotion” and then the lyrics fizzle out under the sound and light show)

Writer/director Steve Antin blandly cuts the dances in time with the rhythm, and while everything on stage shines and sparkles with spotlights, backlighting, and probably Vaseline and glitter, the club itself appears a drab, dingy place lit with bulbs covered in fishnet stockings.

The acting is secondary to the singing, and yes, Aguilera’s voice is a powerful thing. Cher sings a couple of times then fades into the background until the establishment-in-financial-trouble plot comes around again (complete with Chekov’s Condominiums to save the day) after spending some time with the lovers-with-obstacles and love-triangle ones. The dialogue is platitudes (“Like is about choices”) and unlikelihoods (Ali says she’s never had a makeup lesson before, and Tess’s assistant Sean (Stanley Tucci) suggests to Jack that a relationship with Ali wouldn’t just be about her).

If it were a little more ridiculous, there might be at least some tolerable, unintentional humor to be had from Burlesque. Instead, it’s a dull, dreary, depressing dance.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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